Boxing

Crime and punishment, war and peace as Michael Conlan takes on Vladimir Nikitin at the Garden

Vladimir Nikitin at a public workout in New York this week
Andy Watters

IN Rio there was the crime, now there will be the punishment. Tonight there will be war and tomorrow peace of mind at last for Michael Conlan.

His green shorts are already laid out in his hotel room beside his boxing boots and title belts. There are still 48 hours to go until a fight that should mark the end of his beginning as a championship fighter but Conlan is ready to rumble and little wonder because he has been waiting more than three years to settle this score.

The man from Cavendish Street in west Belfast takes on Vladimir Nikitin tonight in the third duel between the former amateur rivals. They bring their six-year feud to Madison Square Garden and what a venue for them to settle their beef once and for all?

Slap bang in the heart of the Big Apple, ‘the Garden' is a 20,000-seater arena where ring legends from Joe Louis to Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier to Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson and modern greats like Lomachenko and Golovkin have drawn blood and spilt their own.

The world watched them all and it will watch tonight when Conlan and Nikitin get their chance to dance on one of boxing's most iconic stages.

All week they've stayed in the same hotel, shared the stage at the press conference and met again at yesterday's weigh-in, held in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.

“He could feel me staring into him and then his eyes came up and we were eye-to-eye,” said Conlan.

“I don't take anything from it but I could see he didn't want to look me in the eye and I kind of forced him to.”

Nikitin has stared him down before and had his hand raised afterwards on both occasions – the first time arguably, the second, well, there was no argument only that Conlan won but somehow the judges at Rio didn't see it that way.

The Belfast man insists it's strictly business and he will go in as favourite tonight but that message has not got through to the Russian camp who fancy the man from Verkhnyaya Maksakovka to complete a stunning hat-trick.

Vladimir Nikitin could not come from anywhere else but Russia. His muscular skull, with its angular facial features might have been mass-produced in a factory deep in a forest in the Ural Mountains, next door to the factory where they used to make the T-34 tanks.

He projects such an aura of toughness that you imagine his baptismal ceremony included being dipped into a freezing lake infested by baby-eating fish mutated after a leak from a nearby nuclear power plant but little Vladimir didn't make a sound. That he's been killing his own food since the age of six and that you could break multiple brush shafts over his torso and he would not flinch.

Why? Because Russians do not flinch.

Okay, maybe that's stereotyping a little but Nikitin is as rugged as they come, he can fight and throughout his career he has been Conlan's bogey man – the wrong man in the right place.

At the world championships in 2013 and then the 2016 Olympics he was there to capitalise and take home medals when circumstances conspired against the Belfast man.

But all that will be consigned to history tonight if Conlan wins at the Garden.

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Boxing